Another intelligent, emotionally wounded protagonist muses on a life consumed by others’ expectations in Brookner’s 21st novel (after The Bay of Angels, 2001, etc.).
“Making things better seemed to have been assigned to him as his life’s work,” thinks Julius Herz, who at 73 has outlived both his mentally ill older brother and the parents who extinguished Herz’s youth and his marriage with their matter-of-fact assumption that he existed to meet their needs. He’s financially secure, thanks to a generous settlement from the owner of the London shop in which he and his father dully labored after fleeing the Nazis, and he has a comfortable flat. But his days are long and lonely, his listless routine of “a newspaper and the supermarket in the morning, and in the afternoon a bookshop or gallery” broken only by an occasional lunch with his ex-wife or dinner with his solicitor, Bernard Simmonds, “during which he would remain on guard against his own indiscretions, while allowing Simmonds full license to indulge his own. That too was what was expected of him.” All this will be familiar anomic territory to Brookner readers, as will Julius’s lifelong love for his selfish, spoiled cousin Fanny, whom he helplessly adored when they were kids in Berlin, then sought out in Switzerland to propose marriage after his divorce and her first husband’s death. Though the proposal was rejected with calm brutality, Fanny reenters Herz’s life 30 years later, blithely counting on Julius’s fidelity when she’s nearly destitute after Husband Number Two’s demise. Will Julius upend his comfortable, empty life to fulfill once again someone else’s agenda? A man who takes an apartment on the calculation that “with a bit of luck he would be dead before the lease ran out” isn’t the most likely candidate for a happy ending.
Sparely written and psychologically astute, as always, from an author who apparently agrees with Herz that “maturity rarely brought cheering insights.”